Soundbox / 'Preconceptions are the death of everything'

PARIS - Though only a few elite musicians are thought to have truly changed the music world, that action is attributed to the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez on an almost routine basis. The Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival will play two of his key pieces during its next concert season, which begins August 31, in honor of his 85th birthday earlier this year.

One of them, "Le Marteau sans Maitre," three song cycles for alto and six instruments that premiered in 1955, is a cornerstone of music history.

"I tried to liberate myself from all the systems we'd developed and discovered," Boulez told Haaretz in the Paris office of IRCAM, a research center dedicated to musical expression and scientific research that he founded. Speaking about the composition process, he said: "I'd just finished Structures I [for two pianos, 1951-1952], the most systemized musical piece ever written, and I recalled Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," and I asked myself if I could write something as sensual as that too."

The chamber music festival, directed by Elena Bashkirova, will also be playing one of Boulez's later works (conducted by Daniel Barenboim ): Derive II for 11 instruments (1988, revised in 2006 ).

Non-musical family

Boulez became familiar with contemporary non-European music through his teacher, pathbreaking composer Olivier Messiaen, at the Paris Conservatoire, where Boulez enrolled in 1942 against the wishes of his father, who had wanted him to attend a technical college. It was there that Boulez encountered the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and the highly innovative Edgard Varese. The sudden acquaintance with these composers shook up the 19-year-old Boulez.

"In Messiaen's regular class, we studied harmony, the way one does at any music academy, but he would pick five or six of his best students for courses in composition and analysis that took place outside regular hours," Boulez said, recounting what can now be found in books about the history of new music.

"We would get together in someone's house, and study the evolution of music from Mozart to Schumann to Debussy and the new music of that period," he said. "Messiaen showed us how the genius composers created their own rules. He was the only one; the other teachers were academics, unimaginative, who taught tricks but not the secrets of style and evolution. This is the way I began to understand composition."

Music wasn't something Boulez could pick up at home, though there was a piano in the house. "My family wasn't musical," he said. "I played and I sang in the choir at school. Because it was a religious school, we sang religious music. I mostly remember Gregorian chant, because it was so different from the other music, and I like it to this day."

'They are second-rate'

Boulez founded IRCAM with government funds in 1977 with the support of then-French president Georges Pompidou, and it is located in the Pompidou Centre. It is the leading institute of new music, and combines music with science and technology. IRCAM researchers study musical notes, the human voice, the integration of emotion in artificial voices like those used for voice mail, and computer recognition of human emotion.

A tour of the institute reveals sophisticated studios ensconced in a building that floats in concrete layers of sound-proofing inside the depths of the earth. This is a space for scientists and composers to cooperate with each other, for educational programs and concert series to be offered to the public, and for a library offering up its modern music treasures. It is at the forefront of a genuine avant-garde trend.

Boulez himself refrains from using that term, with which is so closely identified. "I never use the term 'avant-garde'" he said. "I prefer to talk about discovery, about the spirit of innovation and curiosity. In music, what has always interested me is what I have never heard before. Before Kafka, no one called anything Kafkaesque, and the same with James Joyce. The composers who always interested me are the ones who, if they hadn't existed, music would have developed in completely different directions. Without Stravinsky, without Schoenberg, music today would be different. In contrast with them, there is the very good and highly respected composer Paul Hindemith. But if he hadn't written a note, would music today sound any different? No.

"I am not saying that we should silence composers like him. But we must understand that they are second-rate. Every generation makes its own discoveries. And if it doesn't, it absorbs the cliches of the past and uses only them; this is what we see among many composers today."

Boulez isn't particularly charitable when asked why he thinks they are not more original. "Perhaps they are tired, or lazy," he said. "It isn't easy to search and innovate and invent. You have to ask a lot of yourself, apply pressure, make demands all the time."

Changing the landscape

Pierre Boulez has changed the landscape of 20th-century conducting as well as composition. Time after time, when listening to a new recording of work he has conducted, it is amazing to see how he has unearthed parts of the musical scores that seem to have been hidden until he discovered them. With the aid of his vast understanding as a composer, his conducting emphasizes sounds and colors we hadn't heard earlier and breathes new life into the music and the emotion it contains.

He has been the principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the music director of the New York Philharmonic and the musical adviser to the Cleveland Orchestra. He continues to conduct concerts around the world.

The 20th century repertoire, from Debussy and Mahler until today, has been reinvigorated over the last few decades, to Boulez's credit.

"I started to conduct by accident," he said. "I was asked to substitute for a conductor at a concert and I discovered that I was better at it than I had thought. I understood that it gave rise to the possibility to change the repertoire."

One of several CDs Boulez released this year features a Haydn symphony, but Boulez said he has not set his sights on the classical repertoire.

"I love Hayden's symphonies, I admit, and it is great fun to conduct them," he said. "But many others do this. It isn't my job. You might say that Haydn doesn't need me. Between Haydn and a rare work by Debussy, which needs to be revealed to the audience anew each time, I prefer Debussy."

Boulez confirmed rumors that he has retired from conducting, saying he wants the time to compose. "I have a lot of ideas," he said. "I love to conduct but feel that it is no longer necessary, because there are young conductors who do a great job of what I did 30 years ago. I enjoy [conducting], I won't deny it - conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is a great joy, but my mission in the field has been completed."

"Time is valuable too and it is impossible to really compose while traveling from concert to concert," he said. "I would have 10 minutes here, an hour there. I need time, and in order to get it there is only one way - simply to refuse to conduct. I tell everyone who asks that I will return to conducting in the 2014-2015 season, and not before."

Boulez sees his work more as a calling than a source of pleasure, and has previously used his role as conductor as a way of bringing Webern's work to the public.

"Thirty years ago, Webern wasn't heard at all," he said. "I felt that I had to conduct his work, to open new horizons to the audience. And by the way, I did that in Israel in 1967, when I conducted Webern's Opus No. 6, but it was in Caesarea, under the skies, and we heard the sea more than the music."

Boulez sees isolation as a source of his energy, saying: "I don't waste my time on meeting people to drink coffee; I have to work."

In a characteristic return to his own music, Boulez plans to revisit Notations, a piano piece from 1945, and then an orchestral work from 1978. He wants to write a third work for Anthemes (the second, for violin and electronic instruments, was written in 1997 ) and write choral music ("I have never made use of the human voice before." )

When asked what style will characterize his upcoming works, Boulez just laughed. "How can I know that now?" he asked. "If you know beforehand what style you will write, you are not a composer. I want to discover what kind of composer I am through the work."

"I must accept the unknown, in order to surprise myself," he said. "Preconceptions are the death of everything."